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Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge – review by Danielle Allen

- March 20, 2009

For my money, one of the best things to happen to political theory and political science in general in the past several years was Josiah Ober‘s move from the Princeton classics department to the Stanford political science department (with a joint appointment in classics and a courtesy appointment in philosophy). Ober draws on empirical evidence about the ancient world in the service of normative political theory, and in so doing sheds light not just on Athens but on the creation and operation of democratic institutions more generally. Danielle Allen, another remarkable classicist/political scientist, reviewed Ober’s latest book, Democracy and Knowledge (Princeton, 2008) for The New Republic last week, and here she highlights why political scientists of all stripes should care about Ober’s work:

Ober’s hypothesis is that Athens’s participatory institutions essentially turned the city into a knowledge-generating and knowledge-aggregating machine, and also supported the effective deployment of useful knowledge over time. Athenian institutions and culture functioned so that the right useful knowledge made it to the right people at the right time, resulting in the production of consistently better-than-average decisions. Athenian institutions and culture also functioned to provide an effective balance between innovation, on the one hand, and, on the other, learning or routinization, which brings efficiency. To overcome the problem of dispersed and latent knowledge, the Athenians used “networking and teaming.” To overcome alignment problems, they built up stores of common knowledge through extensive publicity mechanisms and an emphasis on “interpresence”–frequent and large public gatherings–and “intervisibility” in public spaces, the capacity of all members of an audience to see each other as well as the speaker; and these stores of common knowledge worked particularly well to sustain systems of reward and sanction able to motivate ordinary citizens. To minimize transaction costs in areas such as trade, they standardized rules and exchanged practices and widely disseminated knowledge about them. The Athenians invested more resources than did their competitors in ensuring that their laws did not contradict each other, and in archiving and widely publishing final versions.

Together with the publication of David Estlund’s Democratic Authority and Scott Page’s The Difference, the last two years have been terrific for people interested in the ability of democracy to make good decisions — and the consequences this capacity might have for democratic legitimacy.

[Hat tip to my Columbia colleague Sam Moyn for Danielle Allen’s review.]

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